The final Pac-12 Conference standings for Larry Scott’s tenure as commissioner will show more L’s than W’s. But let’s give him credit for a championship exit. He’s bailing in June, a year ahead of contract expiration, but also ahead of more grimness for big-time college sports.
Scott won’t have to deal with the Power 5 conferences seceding sloppily from the NCAA to form their own minor-league pro football enterprise.
Because universal vaccinations still won’t be complete, nor accepted by a chunk of the population, perhaps including players, he won’t have to deal next fall with the start/stop of another college football season crippled by COVID-19.
Nor will he have to deal with another fiscal year of financial peril in athletic departments that will take many moons to recover from the disaster of empty stadiums and canceled games of 2020 because of the pandemic. Not to mention the longer-term problem of brick-and-mortar universities finding themselves increasingly irrelevant because online degrees are cheaper and easier.
True, he won’t get a chance to re-do the debacle of his creation of the Pac-12 Networks. The regional sports-TV shop wasn’t the worst business idea since sandpaper wiper blades, but it’s in the discussion.
Then again, for a guy getting along on a meager $5.3 million in annual compensation, he can’t expect everything to go his way. Who does he think he is — a big deal?
Yes. Scott always thought he was a bigger deal than he was. That’s why he chartered a private jet to swoop himself around the conference. That’s why he always had the hotel’s biggest suite. That’s why he talked university leaders into a slick new conference headquarters in the heart of San Francisco, despite the $7 million annual lease.
In his words, he thought of the Pac-12 less as a college sports conference and more as “a media company.”
Well, if you’re going to go all Louis Vuitton and Dom Perignon, you better bring home the francs. Scott didn’t.
That a large part of conference’s decision to “part ways” with Scott after 11 years, a decision announced Wednesday night, and overdue for some time.
Even he thought so.
“I’ve been thinking about this for a while,” Scott told The Athletic in an interview. “When I finally sat down with our board at our normal time, this happened very quickly and amicably. It’s a good time for the Pac-12 and a good time for me . . . I’ve got a lot of ideas about what I want to do, but nothing specific . . . After 20 years in pro sports and over 10 in college sports without a break, I want to take some time to reflect, transform and grow. I’m in no rush.
“I’m going into this next phase, wanting to take my time and be prepared to be surprised by what the next opportunity might be that excites me.”
After the Pac-12 Networks debacle, you’d think Scott would be done with surprises.
In 2011, Scott looked like a genius when he helped invent the Pac-12 Networks, a set of regional channels wholly owned by the conference, which struck deals with vendors ESPN and FOX for $3 billion in rights fees over 12 years, including telecasts of non-revenue (Olympic) sports. The increase in revenues over such a long time emboldened athletic departments to engage in a pricey arms race for facilities that were financed largely based on future income projections.
Not long thereafter, the other conferences landed better deals by partnering with ESPN and Fox in their conference networks that featured just football and men’s basketball. Scott’s play began to falter when he failed to secure a distribution deal with the huge region’s largest satellite system, DirecTV.
Scott secured distribution fees from many smaller cable outfits, but DirecTV wanted a steeply discounted price, arguing accurately that there was minimal audience for 99 percent of the content beyond football. University presidents thought they were getting a 24/7 cable-TV infomercial for their schools, but when DirecTV told them to drop dead, the Pac-12 was in a low-boil panic. It fell behind, and stayed there, unable to improve its financials until TV agreements expire in 2024.
Cut to the chase: For fiscal year 2019 (pre-pandemic), according to research by USA Today, the Big Ten distributed revenues of $55.6 million to each conference member; Southeastern Conference $45.3 million; Big 12 $38-42 million; Atlantic Coast $28-34 million, and Pac-12 $32 million.
The huge differential is part of why the Pac-12 has fallen behind competitively in sports results. While it’s true that Pac-12 Networks has accumulated equity value, that doesn’t pay the bills now nor improve future budgets.
Since the Pac-12 Networks deal was struck, 10 of the Pac-12 schools have new presidents/chancellors, most of whom look at the conference financials and ask, how did we get here?
“At the time, we had 100 percent alignment amongst our presidents, athletic directors and us about our objectives,” Scott told The Athletic. “The Pac-12 Networks was largely about giving opportunity and exposure to our Olympic sports that weren’t getting any. It wasn’t about money or distributing football games, which, prior to that, were distributed just on local regional sports networks. But hindsight is awesome.”
True, but if you’re running a media company, it seems prudent for the boss to choose wisely the content that will grow revenues in a competitive marketplace. In fact, he was running a sports conference, and gave in to the “owners.”
Oh, well. Now he no longer has to suffer second-guessers, and is getting out of college football ahead of its pending reformation. Nor does he have put up further with cat-calls over the gruesome quality of conference football officiating, which has generated a perpetual Twitter hashtag to describe anything of enduring badness: #Pac12refs
Giving up the jet just might be worth it.